A&Q Part 2 – “Oh hai reed mi book pleez?”

April 16, 2009 at 4:42 PM | Posted in Agents, Authors, Queries, Writing, Writing Advice, YA | 4 Comments

So. The query letter. If you have been a writer for any period of time, you have probably heard about these literary torture devices.

A query letter is basically your book’s college application, in which you describe the amazing, beautiful, talented, and desirable nature of said book. In other words – sell it, kid! You’re trying to make money off this jumbled mess of words – you can’t blush and stammer and say, “Um, yeah…so I wrote this book…and I think it’s kind of good…” No. Just no. Would you hire an employee who says, “Um, yeah…so, I’m kind of a hard worker”? Would you go see a play that was just kind of entertaining?

Of course not. (And if you would, then you’re weird. Just sayin’.)

If you want to make your query sparkle like a certain 108-year-old virgin vampire, there are a few steps you should take note of.

Step 1: Spell the agent’s name right.

No, seriously – this is a biggie. I made the mistake of copy-and-pasting a few queries once and completely forgot to change the salutation from “Dear Mr. Billy-Bob Agent” to “Dear Ms. Sarah-Jane Agent.” Got a rejection in two minutes flat. And you know what? I don’t blame them. People who misspell your name = people who don’t care enough to look it up. People who do not care = people you don’t want to work with.

So. Check your spelling. Check your grammar. And if the agent is a woman, DO NOT address it to “Mr. Billy-Bob.”

Step 2: Be specific.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean, and I’ll do it by publicly humiliating myself with my crappy query-writing skills. In the first draft of my query for City of Shadows/Ghostland/Still-don’t-know-what-I’m-calling-this-thing I was trying to describe the Promised Land, which is a legendary secret city where defects can live in peace and safety. So I wrote this:

The door to a lost civilization lies just under the city’s surface, and Dax is uniquely equipped to find it. But as they follow the clues to the underground city, Dax begins to suspect that this is more than an archaeology trip, and the lost civilization might not be lost – just hidden. And this hidden world could threaten everything Serenity and Dax have ever known.

See any problems with this? Well, I do. One: That part at the end? About the hidden world threatening everything they’ve ever known? Yeah, well, that isn’t actually in the book. I just thought it sounded cool. Note to self: Cool hooks are only cool if they’re true.

Another problem with this little snippet is that it doesn’t tell the agent anything. Hidden worlds? Lost civilizations? How many fantasy and sci-fi books can you think of that have one or both of these elements? You can probably name at least five off the top of your head. This snippet, while somewhat interesting, is not in the least bit unique. I need to be more specific, describe the details of the Promised Land to explain what sets it apart from the Smoke in Uglies or Jared’s rebel cell in The Host or… you get the idea.

So, here is draft 2:

The Faires are seeking the truth about a dangerous rumor: a group of rebel defects hidden in the abandoned subways of New D.C. As a ghost, Dax knows the hidden corners of the city like no one else.

Aha! So the story is set in a futuristic D.C.! So the Promised Land is really the flooded-out tunnels of the D.C. metro! This is better – it suddenly makes the story unique (or more unique, anyway). That is absolutely vital in writing a query letter. BE SPECIFIC. BE SPECIFIC. BE SPECIFIC. Tattoo it on your forehead. Write it on your hand. Post it above your desk. It is that important.

Step 3: Keep the mini-synopsis under 300 words.

Be warned: It’s going to be hard. You’re going to want to talk about your main character’s dog – because really, he’s an important part of the plot since he helps the MC realize his own need for love and affection. You’re going to want to talk about the crackhead next-door neighbor who randomly dispenses wise information. You’re going to want to explain that your MC is from an abusive family made up of a shapeshifter, a wizard, a werewolf, and a vampire, and that’s why he can only eat rare beef sprinkled with fairydust and dog hair…

Let me give you a piece of advice: Don’t.

Queries are the equivalent of the blurb on the back of a book. You want to engage the agent, not tell them the whole story before they read it. Keep it under 300 words.

Step 4: Proofread

And by “proofread” I mean “grab someone who knows the business and have them read and re-read and re-re-read your query letter until it is perfect.”

Another personal example for your entertainment: With my first novel I did not ask anyone to critique my query. I edited it myself, decided it was “good enough,” and sent it out. Five months later, I had sent approximately 70 letters and gotten about 6 positive responses.

With CoS, I must have rewritten the query ten times (with the advice of the fabulous Twifties and my super-hot, super-smart boyfriend). I’m at a 25% request rate so far.

Do yourself a favor – don’t go this alone. Querying is tough enough without a good support group who can help you polish your work until it shines. Don’t try to prove your genius by getting all huffy and saying, “I don’t need your help; I’m a genius.” Life is going to kick you in your pompous a$$, I promise.

Step 5: Send that sucker out!

By now you are starting to hate that mini-synopsis with a passion. You’ve probably gone so far as to hate your little signature at the bottom. This is a good sign – it means your query has sat on your desk for so long that it’s probably time to send it out into the world. So do it! Pick a handful of agents (whose names you can spell) and kick that query out the door!

Good luck, aspiring writers, and may the muse be with you.




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  1. Great advice Red :) Love the lolcatz too :D Now if it was only that easy…

  2. Sometimes it seems like query writing is all about balancing Step 2 and Step 3. I actually ended up cutting one of the three main characters in my book from my query, simply because… well, he COULD be cut, the agent didn’t NEED to know about him just yet, and trying to explain him would have resulted in some awkward phrasing.

    Anyway, great post. I really can’t wait to start sending my stuff out. Must… finish first draft… must spend months editing, aah!

  3. This is such a valuable post. (And what I needed when I queried!) Very slick – well done!

  4. Love your blog and all the great info. I just created my blog yesterday and my hope is to have something similar to yours. Great job and good luck in your quest:)

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